The fashion industry is in for a major makeover.
A new California law meant to increase wages for garment workers went into effect this year. Meanwhile, New York has introduced a historic bill that would revolutionize the industry as we know it. I’m talking about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, cleaning up the supply chain, and enforcing it all through fines. Both pieces of legislation signal the direction the industry is headed—and the direction all industries need to take if we’re to combat the climate crisis.
Welcome to The Frontline, where climate justice includes the clothes we wear and the people who make them. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. Though many people often look abroad to assess human rights abuses in the fashion industry, the reality is that the U.S. is not immune. Lawmakers are finally doing something about it.
I own one set from Fashion Nova. I don’t shop from the store anymore, which is promoted heavily by musicians and celebrities like Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B. A few years ago, I shifted away from fast fashion brands like it—but a lot of my friends and family still turn to Fashion Nova because its clothes are cheap and arrive quickly.
As it turns out, Fashion Nova owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in wages to its California workers employed by contractors Fashion Nova hires. Fashion Nova isn’t alone; wage theft claims exist for brands like Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters. This is the reality behind so-called affordable clothing. It’s cheap for a reason—and the cost often falls on the backs of underpaid workers either in the U.S. or abroad.
A new law in California, Senate Bill 62, went into effect this year to reverse this trend. Instead of garment workers earning money for each item of clothing they produce (as was the standard before the law passed), they’ll earn an hourly wage. And the bill has sparked a domino effect: Last week, New York state announced the introduction of the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act. While the California law zeroes in on garment manufacturing, this New York bill looks at the various stages of production. It demands that all apparel and footwear companies earning more than $100 million a year monitor the environmental and social impacts from their products—from wage theft to river pollution. The bill also requires these companies to do something about the issues they identify. If they don’t? Well, they should prepare for a fine of up to 2% of their annual revenues.
Should it become law, the bill could carry global impact—not only for workers but for climate change efforts more broadly. After all, New York is a fashion capital.
“Things are moving in the right direction,” said Aja Barber, fashion journalist and author of Consumed, a book on sustainability in the fashion industry. “They’re definitely moving at a glacial pace, which I don’t love, but it’s nice to see these things finally happening because even if these laws don’t pass, it extends to a greater and deeper conversation that needs to be had.”
The fashion industry is responsible for an estimated 4% of global carbon emissions. The production of our clothes drives most of those emissions. What’s more, so much of this clothing winds up in landfills: millions of tons in the U.S. alone. And while the industry depends on water, it doesn’t exactly take care of water resources. Microplastics end up in waterways from the microfibers released when we wash our clothes. Companies don’t always dispose of their dyes properly, either. In Bangladesh, rivers like the Buriganga run black from all the dyes dumped into them.
You see why the industry is overdue for a makeover?
“If the U.S. is to tackle climate change head-on, we must ensure that our business practices and regulations, no matter the industry, are made with environmental justice in mind.”
Even in the U.S., workers have earned as little as $2.68 an hour. And many workers tend to be immigrants who may be scared to speak up or not be aware of their rights. The new law in California begins to address these abuses by requiring workers to receive minimum wage—but it also goes a step further by making fashion brands accountable to these employees, too.
“That way, a worker can seek recompense not just from whoever directly hired them but from the businesses for whom the goods are being produced,” Jeff Trexler, a law professor at Fordham University who focuses on fashion ethics and sustainability, explained in an email.
Trexler credits New York’s proposal as an indirect impact from California’s efforts. “California and New York have for years been locked in a mimetic rivalry when it comes to ethics-driven laws,” he said. “When one state passes a law to protect workers, consumers, or the environment, the other tries to level it up.”
Trexler makes an important point. So long as there’s another level for states to reach on environmental or worker protections, our legislators should be working diligently to help us get there. Still, New York’s Fashion Act was born out of a vision from Maxine Bédat, founder and director of the New Standard Institute, a fashion-focused think tank.
The institute collaborates with brands to help them achieve environmental progress. In conducting this work, Bédat realized companies needed a standard to help guide them, a standard they would all adhere to. So the New Standard Institute connected with New York State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi and Assembly Member Anna Kelles to propose draft legislation that could develop such a standard. It’s difficult to convince CEOs to break from the pack and address environmental or social concerns, especially if doing so may affect bottom lines or upset shareholders.
“It is definitely a different thing to poke holes at what companies are doing, and then be like, OK, what should the rules of the game be?” Bédat said.
New York wants to set the rules for the state—and beyond. The bill would have global ramifications if passed given the international nature of the supply chain and how fashion brands conduct business. And what type of fashion company would give up its New York customer base?
“The whole idea is that it has a global reach,” Bédat said. “We are setting a standard for any apparel and footwear company wishing to sell to New Yorkers.”
What has come together is a thorough set of rules that will force companies to measure their global environmental and social impacts and plan ways to improve. Should they fail, companies can be fined and forced to stop operations in the state. Fine proceeds would go into a fund for low-income or communities of color climate change is disproportionately affecting. If clothing and footwear companies want to continue doing business in the fashion capital of the world, they’ll need to get with the program.
Kelles, a co-sponsor of the bill, isn’t worried about the bill passing. Some industry leaders, after all, have supported it, including Stella McCartney. Kelles hopes to see more industry leaders speak out in support of the bill and champion its passage.
“We have run out of time in taking baby steps that still prioritize economic gains over environmental sustainability,” she said.
Biaggi, the other bill co-sponsor, said in an email she hopes the legislation sets a precedent so that more states follow suit. “If the U.S. is to tackle climate change head-on, we must ensure that our business practices and regulations, no matter the industry, are made with environmental justice in mind,” she said.
If New York and California are any indication, 2022 just might set some new fashion trends. Let’s just hope these last beyond a season.